INEX Chief Executive Kane Black on Innovating the Future of MedTech

LUXUO speaks to the man making waves in medical research and innovations in the MedTech sector alongside the growth of INEX.

Jan 16, 2024 | By Florence Sutton
INEX Innovate's chief executive Kane Black
INEX Innovate’s chief executive Kane Black

INEX Innovate (or INEX for short) is Asia’s first women’s health technology group. As one of Asia’s fastest growing medical technology developers and medical laboratory operators, INEX focuses on developing and commercialising molecular diagnostic technologies in the areas of fetal health and female oncology. With a broad commercial portfolio of validated molecular diagnostic tests for prenatal health, and women’s oncology. INEX operates a College of American Pathologists (CAP) accredited clinical laboratory that provides diagnostic testing and contract research services in Singapore to clients right across the South East Asian region.

In addition to INEX’s growing portfolio of technologies that are under development, INEX is actively pursuing merger and acquisition opportunities, as part of a regional rollup strategy across Asia, with the first acquisition of a Taiwan genomics business announced earlier this year. The company is exploring further potential acquisitions in Malaysia, Indonesia and India, with the aim of creating a top two company in fetal-maternal and women’s health diagnostics in Asia. Founded by maternal-fetal medicine specialists, INEX has been recognised globally with several accolades including The Straits Times Singapore’s fastest-growing companies and the Financial Times’ high-growth companies Asia-Pacific and has achieved accolades from Frost & Sullivan and the World Intellectual Property Organisation.

Coming off his recent win at the EY Singapore Entrepreneur of the Year Awards. LUXUO speaks to INEX Innovate’s chief executive Kane Black on INEX’s role on the future of fetal-maternal care and oncology alongside INEX’s ambition to “democratise diagnostics”.

INEX Innovate's chief executive Kane Black
INEX Innovate’s chief executive Kane Black

What brought you into the field of diagnostic research? 

Having been in the life sciences industry for several years on the investment side, diagnostics was a crucial part that one of my original co-founder’s, Ivanna Salehudin and I, saw significant unmet clinical needs, specifically around women’s health. The importance of diagnostics cannot be overestimated, as without the availability of accurate diagnostics you don’t have therapy. 

This culminated in the establishment of Nova Satra Dx Pte Ltd – which began research & development into a highly accurate liquid biopsy, or blood based, breast cancer diagnostic test, a company later backed by Malaysian conglomerate Genting Berhad. In 2019 following several meetings with the original founders of INEX Innovations Exchange — Prof Mahesh Choolani and Dr. Sidney Yee together with medtech investor Kok Hwee Sim — we saw an opportunity to bring together, by way of a merger, Singapore’s two women’s health life sciences companies – this led to the creation of what is now known as INEX Innovate Pte Ltd. 

Since then, the company has rapidly grown from 10 team members to 55 members, with 35 in Singapore and 20 based in Taiwan. We have launched 11 new lab-based clinical testing services providing them to a growing network of more than 200 doctors, clinics, and hospitals right across Asia.

INEX now has 34 patents in the women’s and maternal health area and 17 trademarks, as well as a range of copyrights, domain names and other intellectual property (IP) tied to its technologies. How important is research and development (R&D) in your business? What percentage of your revenues are reinvested in R&D?  

As a medical innovator, INEX Innovate is deeply involved in academia and research and development. We not only support the local eco system through supporting research, licensing and commercialising the technologies that are developed by the INEX team but also in Singapore’s centres of scientific excellence. INEX also provides the scientific and medical community access to our technologies, I.P and know-hows to innovate and create new products.

In terms of the percentage of revenues reinvested in R&D, this has fluctuated dramatically due to our pivot and focus on COVID-19 testing during the pandemic when we focused all resources in supporting Singapore in COVID PCR testing with R&D taking a back seat. In 2022 and 2023 we refocused on R&D and invested approximately 50 percent of revenues in R&D. In a normalised environment typically we would expect to see 10 to 15 percent of revenue being invested in R&D.

Registered IP being developed is crucial as it provides the incentives that enable innovators across a wide variety of industries to undertake the often risky, difficult, expensive, and time-consuming process of creating new-to-the-world innovations. Today we see such intangible assets, such as IP rights, which now command approximately 90 percent of the S&P500 market value in 2020.

Established in Singapore, how has the country which is known for supporting fast growing SMEs, helped the growth of INEX?   

Asia stands as the vibrant epicenter of fast-growing markets, captivating the attention of businesses and investors alike. With a dynamic blend of diverse cultures, innovative technologies, and a burgeoning middle class, the continent is undeniably the place to be for those seeking unprecedented opportunities. Having lived in Asia for almost 20 years, in Japan, Hong Kong and now Singapore, it would be, in my view difficult to find a better place to establish a business today than Singapore. With a well-developed ecosystem, deep pool of skilled talent, quality manufacturing, the best infrastructure in the world combined with excellent support from governing agencies, while being in South-East Asia, one of the world’s fastest growing and increasingly important regions of the world, Singapore has been instrumental in the growth of INEX. 

INEX was founded by practicing obstetricians, gynaecologists (OBGYNs) and key opinion leaders in fetal-maternal care and oncology. How has such a debuting line-up in developing the business impacted INEX’s core mission?

The founding genesis of INEX as a women’s and fetal maternal health medical innovator stems from our co-founder Prof Mahesh Choolani’s deep experience in the women’s health arena as a practising OBGYN and pre-eminent key opinion leader in the area of fetal maternal health. This foundation uniquely provides INEX with deep insights into unmet clinical needs which has led us to many first’s – including being the first company in Asia to launch Non Invasive Prenatal Testing “NIPT” with our iGene® NIPT test, OvaCis® an intraoperative point of care test kit for patients who present with ovarian cysts and a number of other technologies under development including LEXI® a Pre-Natal Diagnostic Test and EpiDx® a blood based breast cancer screening test. 

You have stated several times that INEX’s ambition is to “democratise diagnostics” by making these medical procedures more accurate, available and affordable to the public. Can you elaborate further there? 

I used the term “democratise diagnostics” to mean allowing or providing patient’s with a choice. A choice in the sense that we make diagnostic tests more accurate, which is critical for the early diagnosis of diseases such as cancer, more widely available so that they are more accessible and at a lower cost to communities – this disruption can really only be a benefit to the societies within which we live. 

Our vision is to democratise medical diagnostics to women across Asia and around the world. Bringing them improved early detection that is more accessible, giving women and mothers greater certainty and confidence in their health and finding disease early, thereby improving their chance of medical success. At INEX, we see every patient who interacts with our products as a singular being who deserves individual care and attention. Customer satisfaction is in the core of our vision and heart of our operations.

INEX’s epiDx® is a patient-friendly option that reduces discomfort from standard imaging processes. By using a blood sample, it displays higher sensitivity and specificity than existing methods. Can you let us know how unique is this specific process in the market?

One of the big issues across Asia when it comes to breast cancer is the stubbornly low screening participation rates. Basically, women who should be going for regular screening aren’t. This leads to a late-stage breast cancer diagnosis when patient’s outcomes are greatly reduced. By moving to blood-based breast cancer screenings at the patient’s point of care GP, we will remove the associated discomfort, which women often say they feel is degrading, and provide greater accessibility to encourage breast cancer screening. 

Additionally, it is estimated 50 percent of Asian women have, what is known as, dense breast tissue. Dense breast tissue can make abnormal findings harder to see on a mammogram because dense breast tissue and some abnormal breast changes, such as calcifications and tumours, both appear as white areas in the mammogram.

With this in mind we went about looking to develop a technology which firstly has improved sensitivity and specificity, secondly removed the associated discomfort and thirdly was available at the standard point of care – with a view that we could bring into regular screening programs women who aren’t currently undergoing any form of screening and therefore improve patient outcomes. 

INEX has conducted substantial studies on ovarian cancers. What has been the finds and practical developments in the labs and on the ground? 

Ovarian cancer is the fifth most prevalent cancer suffered by women globally. While this is less prevalent than other cancers it is sadly one of the deadliest cancers due to it commonly being diagnosed at an advanced stage, when the chance of successful treatment is greatly reduced. 

This is due in part to there being no accurate molecular screening test currently existing to detect early-stage ovarian cancer, so initial ovarian cancer diagnosis commonly found based on symptoms, such as bloating, fatigue, weight loss, abdominal distention, pelvic pain and feeling full quickly. Unfortunately, by the time most patients with ovarian cancer see a doctor, 70 percent to 80 percent are already late stage. That’s because the symptoms of ovarian cancer are so vague, and patients often experience them for months before seeking help.

With this unmet need in tackling ovarian cancer, the team at INEX have developed two solutions. The first is OvaCis® an intra-operative point of care test, that is used to test if an ovarian cyst is benign or malignant (cancerous). As many as 1 in 10 women at some point in their lifetime will develop an ovarian cyst. While these cysts will, more often than not, prove to be benign and will clear up without treatment, it is important that they are tested. Current practice is what is known as a “frozen section” where a surgeon removes part of the tissue and sends to a pathologist who freezes the tissue with liquid nitrogen, slices the tissue into sections, and then stains it with special staining solutions so that it can be viewed under a microscope. This process takes up to an hour and is not universally available. INEX’s OvaCis® solution is a highly sensitive and specific, and is made on a lateral flow device, like a COVID-19 ART test kit for ease of use, without need for complicated procedures. It simply uses the fluid which is from within the cyst, which is then placed onto the device and visualised within 15 minutes to determine if the cyst is benign or malignant. 

Secondly we are developing a blood-based ovarian cancer screening test dubbed Xena® – a minimally invasive and efficient method of screening for ovarian cancer. Xena® measures the levels of microRNA in the blood, specifically picking up an abnormal expression of microRNAs that are correlated with the presence of ovarian cancer. Xena® is aimed to be launched in late 2024.

Kane Black with his team at the E50 awards

You shared that “with a talented, entrepreneurial and dedicated team, we are on track to becoming Asia’s leading molecular diagnostic developer”. What is next on the horizon for INEX, an IPO? 

INEX is expanding both organically, through new product launches and new market entry, and through acquisition. As part of our pan-Asia roll-up strategy we recently announced the acquisition of a Taiwan based genomics group, that has a growing North Asia business with revenues emanating from Taiwan, Japan and Korea. 

We are currently in negotiations on another potential acquisition of a firm which is the market leader in their country in fetal-maternal and women’s health testing, additionally we are exploring other potential synergistic M&A opportunities. With this we aim to be a top-two player in every market in Asia in fetal-maternal and women’s health. 

We have been actively studying a number of potential IPO opportunities here in Singapore, London, New York and some of the regional bourses. However in light of the current challenging and sub-optimal conditions in the IPO market, we are patient until a window of opportunity opens to progress to an eventual IPO.

INEX Innovate’s chief executive Kane Black at the EY Singapore Entrepreneur of the Year Awards

You have won the highly coveted EY Singapore Entrepreneur of the Year Award for the biotechnology sector in 2022. What were your thoughts on receiving this recognition for the work you and your team have produced?  

Being one of six winners to be selected by an independent judging panel from close to 140 nominations for the EY Singapore Entrepreneur of the Year Award 2022 was an incredibly proud moment for me and my team. At the end of the day as a leader one can only be as good as one’s team and this recognition really is a credit to the entire team of dedicated, driven, and brilliant members at INEX Innovate and iGene Laboratory. I am grateful and honored to serve as Chief Executive of INEX and iGene.

If you were to name one mentor who has inspired you in your life and career, who would that be? 

I have learnt and been inspired by many people in my life from all different walks, from my first Japanese boss to business partners, friends and family. I am an avid reader of biographies and auto biographies and believe these are often a source of great inspiration. You can learn, and be inspired by, what has taken someone 20, 30, 40 or 50 years of experience in a few hundred pages.

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